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The Cross and the Hammer/Chapter 7

CHAPTER VII.

HOW VAGN KEPT HIS VOW.

"THAT is all, I think; twenty of I them. No, this one stirred somewhat. Here, lift him up."

Sigurd opened his eyes. Over him were bending two men, one his handsome opponent, the other—Thorkel Leira. The boy struggled to his feet, the former assisting.

It was only mid-afternoon, the storm had passed, and about the Jomsborg ships lay the Norse fleet. Glancing around, Sigurd saw the decks heaped with dead, and in the waist of the ship was a little group of Jomsvikings, their arms bound. Then he remembered Vagn.

Thorkel Leira was holding a horn of water to Vagn's lips, and as Sigurd, weak and dizzy, knelt at his friend's side, he wondered why Thorkel thus aided his deadly enemy. He was soon to know.

Vagn looked up. As he caught sight of Thorkel he dashed the horn aside and struggled up on Sigurd's arm. Before he could speak, however, a group of men approached and bound the boys' arms, under the orders of the handsome chief. Then they were led into the waist of the ship and joined the others.

The men gave a murmur of joy. "It was a noble fight, eh, Vagn?" muttered an old viking, Biorn of Bretland, or Wales. "I have fought for twenty years under your father Aki and your grandfather Palnatoki, and I never saw a greater battle than this."

"It is a sad one for the brotherhood, Biorn," replied Vagn weakly, "when the Jarl himself turned tail and fled."

A murmur of anger ran around the group, then Sigurd asked, "Who is the tall man, and what will they do with us?"

Biorn nodded toward some small boats near by. "They are taking us on shore, I know not why. Neither do I know the man.

A group of Norsemen approached, and the captives were led to the boats, which were swiftly rowed to the shore. Here, upon a long fallen tree, sat the Jomsborg men, with their feet bound in a long rope; but their hands were left free.

The Norsemen surrounded them, binding up wounds, exchanging rough jests on the battle, and examining with awe and wonder these vikings whose name was so famous, and who had fought so stoutly against such great odds.

Presently the tall man and Thorkel Leira landed. "I have it, Sigurd!" cried Vagn. "That handsome man must be Jarl Eirik, Hakon's son!"

At that instant the handsome man came up to the captives.

You fought well and stoutly, Jomsvikings," he said, "and I am in truth sorry that Jarl Hakon has ordered that no quarter be given, for I would fain spare your lives if I might."

"It is the fortune of war," replied Vagn, smiling bravely. "Had we conquered, I do not think that Sigvald would have spared Hakon either, yet Christian men have more merciful customs than you who follow Thor and Odin."

The other flushed slightly, turning to Thorkel. "It is not to my taste, Thorkel, to slay these helpless men thus."

Thorkel smiled his cunning, cruel smile. "It is much to my taste, Jarl, to slay Vagn Akison!"

At this Vagn cried out, "Yet you feared to stand before me in battle, Thorkel! Say, will you loose my bonds and meet me now with sword or axe?"

A murmur of assent arose from the Norsemen who stood around, but Thorkel shook his head, as he fingered the big axe in his hand.

As Thorkel withdrew to speak with the handsome man for a moment, old Biorn leaned over and whispered excitedly to Sigurd: "It is just a chance, Fairhair, so try it."

Sigurd nodded as Thorkel returned. "Best begin with the chiefs, Thorkel," he cried, although his heart beat madly, for if Biorn's plan did not work nothing could save his life. Thorkel advanced and stood in front of him.

"Since you are in haste to die, let it be so."

"Wait!" exclaimed Sigurd, as the man swung his axe aloft. "Let someone hold my hair, lest it be defiled and soiled."

A Norseman, with a word of admiration at the lad's bravery, stepped forward and gathered up the boy's long, fair hair in his hands, and the axe swung.

As it descended, Sigurd jerked his body so strongly to one side that the axe was buried in the earth, and Thorkel lost his balance and fell forward. A laugh went up from the crowd as the angry man rose, but the handsome chief advanced and held his arm.

"Who are you, handsome lad?"

"I am called Sigurd, and am Bui's son," replied Sigurd, looking up to the other's eyes, which met his in admiration. "The Jomsborg men are not yet all dead!"

"Truly you are a son of Bui!" exclaimed the other. "Will you take life and peace from me?"

"If you have the power to give it," answered Sigurd.

The man drew himself up. "He offers who has power to give—Jarl Eirik Hakonson."

"Thanks, Jarl," replied Sigurd, with a breath of relief, "I will accept it." The whisper of old Biorn had proved true.

Thorkel, with a dark frown, plucked up his axe, and cried angrily, "Though you spare all these men, Eirik, Vagn shall not escape me!"

With that he raised the axe. As the weapon whirled, Biorn flung himself against Thorkel's knees. The man stumbled, the axe fell; and Vagn, springing up in a flash, seized it and fulfilled his vow.

A great shout of applause rang out, for above all things Norsemen love a brave deed. They crowded around admiringly, and Jarl Eirik with a smile, said, "Will you also take life, Vagn?"

"That I will," answered Vagn, "if you will also give it to my men as well."

"Loose them from the rope," commanded the Jarl, and it was done.

By this time evening was coming on, and the Norsemen hastily made a camp on the shore; Jarl Hakon was encamped across the bay. The men sat around the fires and talked in low tones, and presently the two boys were summoned to the fire of the Jarl.

Eirik greeted them with a winning smile. "Sit down and eat, friends, for I have somewhat to think over. My father gave express commands that no Jomsviking was to be spared; why I gave you life I know not, save that you were but boys, and full of courage. Now, whither would you go?"

Vagn looked at Sigurd. The latter nodded, and Vagn told Eirik the story of Ulf and Astrid, who were waiting a few miles away. When he finished the Jarl sat in thought for a moment.

"Here is my counsel. If I send you both off together, my father will send a ship after you to slay you, and I will not have my promise broken. I go home from here by land to the mountains, and so to my own earldom. I would advise that you, Vagn, come with me, for I can protect you, and let Sigurd rejoin Ulf with the eighteen Jomsvikings who are left. I will send you home, Vagn, within a month at most."

"That is a good plan," exclaimed Vagn. "Do you not think so, Fairhair?"

Sigurd assented, though he disliked to part with his cousin; but there was no help for it, and so it was decided.

Early the next morning the Jomsborg men and Sigurd ran out three small boats and said farewell to Vagn. Eirik armed them all well, and made them many presents; and as they pushed off Vagn stood on the shore, waving farewell.

"I'll see you at Jomsborg next month," called Sigurd. "Farewell!"

Under a fair wind the three boats ran quickly down the bay, rounded the end of Hod Island, and arrived in an hour at the Herey Islands. Steering in between the largest and smallest, they reached into the bay, and there before them lay the "Otter."

A shout of greeting came to them, and as they pulled up to the side Ulf Ringsson sprang on the rail.

"What news of the battle? Who won?"

Sigurd pointed to his men, all of them wounded. "These are all left of the Jomsvikings," he replied. A cry of horror went up, and Ulf staggered back.

"Impossible! Where is your father Bui, Jarl Sigvald, Vagn Akison, Aslak Holmskalle? They cannot be dead!"

"Some are even worse off," said Sigurd, climbing the rail wearily. "Vagn is safe, my father is dead with Aslak, and Sigvald and his men have fled home again."

While Astrid greeted Sigurd, and his wounded and weary men clambered on board, Ulf remained stunned with amazement. "Fled! Fled!" he muttered. "The Jarl himself false to his vows!"

He could not believe it; for it was the most sacred law of Jomsborg that no viking should turn his back to a foe. Sigurd told of the fight, while the excited sailors questioned his men, and as he finished Astrid sprang forward.

"You are wounded, Sigurd! See, your arm is all red, and your head is bloody!"

"Yes, bind it up," laughed Sigurd bitterly, "for the Jomsborg rules are shattered with the brotherhood forever!" Then he reeled, and would have fallen save for the strong hand of Ulf.

They carried him to the cabin, and while the men set sail, Ulf, who was skilled as a leech, extracted the broken arrow-head and bound up the wound. The other, on his head, was not dangerous, and Sigurd soon
 
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"Never mind, we will soon be back again with good Queen Gunhild."

 
fell into a deep sleep, not waking till the afternoon.

The rocking of the ship told him that they were out at sea, so he hastened on deck; to his surprise, the land was out of sight, and a heavy gale was blowing.

"So you are awake!" cried Astrid. "How do you feel?"

"Ready for another battle," laughed Sigurd, then his brow clouded over as he thought of his father. Astrid, divining his thoughts, was silent for a moment, then changed the subject.

"We had no sooner left the land than this gale broke on us, and Ulf says that it is growing stronger every minute."

Sigurd looked around. Indeed, the gale was a heavy northeaster, and now he noticed that the sail was close-reefed, and that everything was stowed away save the three boats in which he had come to the "Otter," which were lashed securely in the shelter of the high stern.

"Hello, I'm glad to see you around so soon!" cried Ulf cheerily, and the boy gripped his hand in thanks.

"If Jarl Hakon were here, Ulf, he would say that Ran, the ocean queen, was trying to complete the work begun by Thor and Odin at Hiorunga Bay."

Sigurd smiled at Astrid, but the captain looked about anxiously.

"We are in for a bad blow, Sigurd. It is good that the 'Otter' is stanch, for to tell you the truth, we are far from our course for Denmark, and it may well be that we shall be driven farther still."